Hearing, or not hearing, what you expect

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 18, 2005
Filed in Anecdotes, Employee Engagement

My friend Michelle turned 30 a couple of weeks ago and we all went to her house for a BBQ. I got talking to her sister who told me she was learning Chinese. She was amused to find that if she attempted to speak the language to her Chinese-speaking (mandarin) friends they had no idea what she was saying until she said something like: Ni hui shuo zhongwen ma? (Can you speak Chinese?)

It’s difficult to hear or see patterns we’re not expecting. This is a big problem for consultants, or anyone else for that matter, who rely on interviews to assess a situation. While an outsider, such as a consultant, can provide new perspectives, they also are constrained by what Umberto Eco calls their background books. We only hear what is in the realm of our possibility. So how do we see and hear the new patterns?

New patterns are only revealed by adopting new perspectives. New perspectives appear when we apply a fresh set of eyes, adopt new frameworks of understanding, create new experiences, propose new questions, adopt new scales or viewpoints, or adopt a new identity. For example, in the process of a project, a fresh perspective may be created by looking at the high-level purpose; this may reveal patterns which were previously hidden at the detail level. We do this naturally in some circumstances while doggedly sticking to ‘the way we do things around here’ for the majority of situations.

Organisations need to build their toolbox of techniques. Obviously I see narrative as an important tool and closely related is the use of metaphor. But there are a myriad of other approaches we will need to become familiar with which will feel uncomfortable at first but will be essential in helping us fully harness the complexity we currently inhabit. We need to get ready to get out of our comfort zone.


About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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